Rather an expensive bridge

2018-04-12 10.11.46 cropAlthough to be fair it’s more than just a bridge. It’s the Ely Southern Bypass so there’s some road, a river crossing (the bridge) and a bridge over the Cambridge-Ely railway line. It’s late and there’s a 40% cost overrun so it was on the E&E Com agenda this morning.

The overrun is substantial, £13 million or 40%, so not only was it a significant agenda item we also got some illustrious members of the public in the audience. Right to left above: Mike Mason (ex councillor), Andrew Rowson (Data Diligence) and Edward Leigh (Smarter Cambridge Transport).

Procurement of the design and construction of the bridge was approved 25 Nov 14 when Mike Mason and I were both members of the E&ECom. It approved the use of an ‘ECI two stage design and build contract’ which has its advantages but allows the project to proceed based on a preliminary ‘target cost’. That’s not a big problem as long as sufficient time is spent on the design stage to develop a sensible target cost.

The advantages of this form of contract notwithstanding it would have been prudent when agreeing the ‘target cost’ to include some contingency to allow for the fact that all was not yet known. This was not done.

A project board was set up to oversee the development and delivery of the scheme. It would be advisory and would provide ‘Member steer’ to decisions taken by officers.

Trouble is once the project was up and running it seems that the Members on the Board pressured officers to accelerate activity. Para 1.5 in today’s papers ‘Members on the Project Board discussed the risks in shortening the tender and design time but emphasised the importance of quick delivery of the scheme’ and para 2.3 ‘The potential risks of minimising time spent on various stages of the project were considered by the Project Board. It was considered that expedient delivery was the priority’.

Such behaviour goes way beyond the remit of the Board and smacks to me of Members acting ultra vires.

The result of this wass that the project was accelerated. The Stage 1 contract (developed design) was awarded and the developed design was used to develop a target price of £27.5 million.It was noted at the time that ‘this sum held no contingency and that additional funding would need to be sought to meet any increase in cost’. The project went forward with a BCR and a funding package based on this sum.

Then it all became difficult, the construction that is, and the current cost estimate is £38.3 million, that’s a 40% uplift. Had this been known when Stage 2 was awarded it’s possible that the project would not have made the cut in terms of its BCR but at least if it had funding for the full cost would have been lined up at the time. As it is CCC has been going round cap in hand looking for more money. It’s failed of course so it will have to resport to using its own money with the consequent impact on Council Tax and/or services.

The project is nearly finished. The new road is due to open in October of this year compared to May 2018 as expected when construction began.

It’s a good project, the bridge design is stunning and the engineers have done a super job. But the meddling of Members and the failure to follow due process is costly and wrong. We, Cambridgeshire County Council, need to learn. To some extent it’s a repeat of the Guided Bus fiasco which has still to run its course. With more big projects potentially coming out of the Greater Cambridge Partnership and the Mayor/Combined Authority it’s important that we learn and don’t keep making the same mistakes.

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